Tawaffa decoded: An exploration of its linguistic dimensions

Arslan Ijaz, Student Jamia Ahmadiyya UK

The tawaffi – or causing the death – of Jesusas is a crucial topic for the glory of Islam. The Arabic verb tawaffa – توفى – is derived from the three root letters و- ف – ي (waw-fa-ya). The verbal noun is توفي (tawaffi). Generally speaking, this word has always been commonly associated with the meaning of death and dying among Arabs. The understanding of this verb in the Quranic paradigm is specific and carries the meaning “to cause to die” or “to take the soul,” which occurs at death or sleep, emphasising the divine control over life and death.

The importance of this verb lies in its usage twice in the Holy Quran for Prophet Jesusas. While Ahmadi Muslims interpret it as relating to “death,” many Muslim counterparts attempt to use alternative meanings such as “to take,” “to take up physically,” “to take in full,” and “to gather” in their translations. This is done in an effort to support the belief that Jesusas is still alive in the heavens. Since the translation suggesting Prophet Jesus’as natural death does not align with their beliefs, they seek to reconcile the verses by linking it to his physical bodily ascension. However, this perspective is to be deemed incorrect and out of context, as will be explained further.

Understanding of tawaffa when used for inanimate objects

Generally speaking, outside of the Quran, when this verb is not used in regard to Allah and applies to an inanimate object, it can give the meaning “to take”. In other words, when Allah is not the subject (fa‘il) and the action is being done upon something that does not have a soul, then this meaning is given. For example, تَوَفّى حَقَّهُ (tawaffa haqqahu) means “he took his share or right”.

Understanding of tawaffa within the Holy Quran

However, this is not the case in the Holy Quran. This word adheres to a specific principle in the Quran. The principle dictates that whenever it is used to denote Allah performing an action upon something with a soul, it can never signify physical ascension across the Quran or the ahadith. Therefore, when the following three conditions are met, the verb tawaffa exclusively conveys the meaning of “giving death” or “putting to sleep” within a specific context. The interpretation of “to take” has no basis at all in such instances.

(i) When the verb tawaffa or its derivatives are used in this specific verb form (this shall be explained later on);

(ii) The subject (fa‘il) is Allah or the angels;

(iii) The object (maf‘ul bihi) has a soul and is not an inanimate object.

In such a case, the meaning “to take” can never be applied as the conditions for this have not been met.

Where does this principle or rule derive from?

As previously stated, tawaffa, with those three conditions being met, can only have two meanings – (i) death or (ii) sleep – and this with a specific connotation. At this junction, one may question where this principle stems from and how we have reached this conclusion and rule. The fact of the matter is that Allah has Himself defined tawaffa in the Holy Quran by providing only these two possible meanings and thus this clarifies the matter:

اَللّٰہُ يَتَوَفَّي الۡاَنۡفُسَ حِيۡنَ مَوۡتِہَا وَالَّتِيۡ لَمۡ تَمُتۡ فِيۡ مَنَامِہَا ۚ فَيُمۡسِکُ الَّتِيۡ قَضٰي عَلَيۡہَا الۡمَوۡتَ وَيُرۡسِلُ الۡاُخۡرٰۤي اِلٰۤي اَجَلٍ مُّسَمًّي ؕ اِنَّ فِيۡ ذٰلِکَ لَاٰيٰتٍ لِّقَوۡمٍ يَّتَفَکَّرُوۡنَ

“Allah takes away the souls of human beings at the time of their death; and during their sleep of those [also] that are not [yet] dead. And then He retains those against which He has decreed death, and sends back the others till an appointed term. In that surely are Signs for a people who reflect.” (Surah az-Zumar, Ch.39: V.43)

Allah has provided only these two possible meanings of tawaffa here – either death or sleep. If there was any other third possible meaning of physical ascension, then Allah would have explained it to us.

Differentiating when tawaffa means sleep and when it means death

The question now arises: After these three conditions are met and we realise that the only possible meanings are death or sleep, how do we differentiate when it means death and when it means sleep? In response to this, the established principle is that when there is no specific mention or indication of sleep, it always, without exception, means death. However, if an indication (qarinah) to sleep is present in the sentence, using words such as night (layl) or sleep (nawm or manaam), then it conveys the meaning of sleep. Thus, by adding a fourth condition to the aforementioned ones, in such a scenario, it always and unequivocally means death.

(i) When the verb tawaffa or its derivatives are used in this specific verb form (this shall be explained later on);

(ii) The subject (fa‘il) is Allah or the angels ;

(iii) The object (maf‘ul bihi) has a soul and is not an inanimate object;

(iv) There is no indication (qarinah) towards sleep in the sentence or the context.

In such a case, the verb tawaffa will always mean death. This is the case in the Quran, ahadith and classical Arabic literature. This is also derived from the aforementioned verse, which states that as for the soul that has not died, then tawaffa happens at sleep.

The challenge of the Promised Messiahas

This was also a challenge from the Promised Messiahas, who wrote:

“If anyone can cite a single instance from the Holy Quran or the Hadith, or from classical or modern Arabic poetry and prose, that the word tawaffa, when applied to anything with a soul, God being the subject, has been used in any connotation other than death […], I bind myself on oath that I shall pay that person one thousand rupees in cash by selling some of my property and shall always hold him in high esteem as a great scholar of the Holy Quran and Hadith.” (Izala-e Awham, Pt. II, Ruhani Khazain, Vol. 3, p. 603)

No one to this day has been able to disprove this challenge. Hazrat Ahmadas also wrote in the same book:

“What I discovered on checking every page of the compilations of Sahih BukhariSahih MuslimTirmidhiIbn MajahAbu DawudNasa’iDarimiMuwatta’, and Sharh as-sunnah, etc., was that the expression ‘tawaffa’ has been used three hundred and forty-six times, and in no single instance has it been used, either by the Holy Prophetsa or by his Companionsra, to mean anything other than ‘death’, or ‘taking possession of the soul’. I have gone through these books with great care, line by line, and I can say that on each and every occasion, the expression tawaffa has been used only in the connotation of death or taking possession of the soul.” (Ibid., pp. 583-585)

Tawaffa happens of the souls, not the physical bodies

Furthermore, the verse (Surah az-Zumar, Ch.39: V.43) quoted previously shows that tawaffa only happens to the souls and not to the worldly physical bodies. This is why souls have been mentioned explicitly in this verse as the object of the verb. Tawaffa has nothing to do with the physical body. At the time of death or sleep, the soul is taken but the physical body remains in this world; it is not affected. Thus, the meaning that the non-Ahmadi Muslims impose of taking the physical body up has no basis, as the influence of tawaffa is upon the souls. Not only is this clarified by Allah Himself in the aforementioned verse, but many of the Arabic dictionaries, including Lisan al-‘ArabTaj al-‘Arus and al-Qamus, confirm the fact that with the abovementioned conditions tawaffa happens to the soul and not the body.

To further support this, we see that the word tawaffa or one of its derivatives has been used a total of 25 times in the Quran. Here are all the verses in which “tawaffa” is used in the Quran:

2:235, 2:241, 3:56, 3:194, 4:16, 4:98, 5:118, 6:62, 7:38, 7:127, 8:51, 10:47, 10:105, 12:102, 13:41, 16:29, 16:33, 16:71, 22:6, 32:12, 40:68, 40:78, 47:28, 6:61, 39:43

In Surah al-An‘am, Ch.6: V.61, and Surah az-Zumar, Ch.39: V.43, it means sleep as the words “night” and “sleep” are present, which are a direct indication towards sleep. In the rest of the 23 verses, the verb always means death.

Thus, we realise that in all 25 instances, not once has it been used to mean anything other than death or sleep. There is no third meaning ever used in the Quran. Whenever sleep had been alluded to, the indication was present. So, I ask, why do non-Ahmadi Muslims try to forcefully attempt to say that in verses 3:56 and 5:118, when it is referring to Jesusas specifically, it does not mean death but rather physical bodily ascension? This meaning goes against the understanding of the usage of this verb and the established principles.

Quranic usage of tawaffa for Jesusas and the true understanding

It would be appropriate now to quickly mention the two verses that use this word in regards to Jesusas for a more complete understanding of the subject at hand:

اِذۡ قَالَ اللّٰہُ يٰعِيۡسٰۤي اِنِّيۡ مُتَوَفِّيۡکَ وَرَافِعُکَ اِلَيَّ وَمُطَہِّرُکَ مِنَ الَّذِيۡنَ کَفَرُوۡا وَجَاعِلُ الَّذِيۡنَ اتَّبَعُوۡکَ فَوۡقَ الَّذِيۡنَ کَفَرُوۡۤا اِلٰي يَوۡمِ الۡقِيٰمَةِ ۚ ثُمَّ اِلَيَّ مَرۡجِعُکُمۡ فَاَحۡکُمُ بَيۡنَکُمۡ فِيۡمَا کُنۡتُمۡ فِيۡہِ تَخۡتَلِفُوۡنَ

“When Allah said, ‘O Jesus, I will cause thee to die [a natural death] and will exalt thee to Myself, and will clear thee from [the charges of] those who disbelieve, and will place those who follow thee above those who disbelieve, until the Day of Resurrection; then to Me shall be your return, and I will judge between you concerning that wherein you differ.’” (Surah Aal-e-`Imran, Ch.3: V.56)

The Ahmadi Muslim translation translates tawaffa as “to cause to die [a natural death]”, and rafa‘a as “to exalt [in status]”.

If we examine the context, the Jews aimed to cause Jesusas to die by specifically crucifying him, intending to demonstrate that he was accursed—following the prevalent tradition of that time. By orchestrating this, they sought to establish that he did not hold a lofty status and, God forbid, was falsely claiming prophethood. In response, Allah assured Jesusas of a natural death, ensuring he would not be killed at the hands of the Jews. Additionally, Allah emphasised that Jesusas held an elevated status, refuting any notion of him being a false claimant to prophethood or accursed. This straightforward interpretation clarifies the verse. The Jews’ accusation was not that he couldn’t ascend to the skies physically; rather, their claim was that he lacked an elevated status, attempting to subject him to an accursed death. Therefore, this understanding aligns with both context and linguistic accuracy.

The second verse, which uses this verb for Jesusas is as follows:

وَاِذۡ قَالَ اللّٰہُ يٰعِيۡسَي ابۡنَ مَرۡيَمَ ءَاَنۡتَ قُلۡتَ لِلنَّاسِ اتَّخِذُوۡنِيۡ وَاُمِّيَ اِلٰہَيۡنِ مِنۡ دُوۡنِ اللّٰہِ ؕ قَالَ سُبۡحٰنَکَ مَا يَکُوۡنُ لِيۡۤ اَنۡ اَقُوۡلَ مَا لَيۡسَ لِيۡ ٭ بِحَقٍّ ؕ؃ اِنۡ کُنۡتُ قُلۡتُہٗ فَقَدۡ عَلِمۡتَہٗ ؕ تَعۡلَمُ مَا فِيۡ نَفۡسِيۡ وَلَاۤ اَعۡلَمُ مَا فِيۡ نَفۡسِکَ ؕ اِنَّکَ اَنۡتَ عَلَّامُ الۡغُيُوۡبِ ۔ مَا قُلۡتُ لَہُمۡ اِلَّا مَاۤ اَمَرۡتَنِيۡ بِہٖۤ اَنِ اعۡبُدُوا اللّٰہَ رَبِّيۡ وَرَبَّکُمۡ ۚ وَکُنۡتُ عَلَيۡہِمۡ شَہِيۡدًا مَّا دُمۡتُ فِيۡہِمۡ فَلَمَّا تَوَفَّيۡتَنِيۡ کُنۡتَ اَنۡتَ الرَّقِيۡبَ عَلَيۡہِمۡ ؕ وَاَنۡتَ عَلٰي کُلِّ شَيۡءٍ شَہِيۡدٌ

“And when Allah will say, “O Jesus, son of Mary, didst thou say to men, ‘Take me and my mother for two gods beside Allah?’”, he will answer, “Holy art Thou. I could never say that to which I had no right. If I had said it, Thou wouldst have surely known it. Thou knowest what is in my mind, and I know not what is in Thy mind. It is only Thou Who art the Knower of hidden things.

“I said nothing to them except that which Thou didst command me — ‘Worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord.’ And I was a witness over them as long as I remained among them, but since Thou didst cause me to die, Thou hast been the Watcher over them; and Thou art Witness over all things.” (Surah Al-Ma’idah, Ch.5: V.117-118)

The first question to consider is why Jesusas does not know the condition of people after him on the Day of Judgement. This fact implies that the Jesusas mentioned has indeed passed away and will not return. For if he is to physically return, then surely he would know how the Christians have taken him to be a god, and if he knows and witnesses this, then how can he, God forbid, speak a lie to God stating that he did not know: “And I was a witness over them as long as I remained among them, but since Thou didst cause me to die, Thou hast been the Watcher over them”.

The usage of tawaffa for the Holy Prophetsa

The Holy Quran and the ahadith have both used this verb for the Holy Prophetsa. Why is it that Muslims who interpret tawaffa to mean that Jesusas was physically raised do not translate this as physical bodily ascension as well?

The Quran says:

وَاِمَّا نُرِيَنَّکَ بَعۡضَ الَّذِيۡ نَعِدُہُمۡ اَوۡ نَتَوَفَّيَنَّکَ فَاِلَيۡنَا مَرۡجِعُہُمۡ ثُمَّ اللّٰہُ شَہِيۡدٌ عَلٰي مَا يَفۡعَلُوۡنَ

“And if We show thee [in thy lifetime the fulfilment of] some of the things with which We have threatened them, [thou wilt know it]; or if We cause thee to die [before that], then to Us is their return, [and thou wilt see the fulfilment in the next world]; and Allah is Witness to all that they do.” (Surah Yunus, Ch.10: V.47)

Next is the hadith mentioned in Sahih al-Bukhari, where the Holy Prophetsa used the same verse that was quoted for Jesusas himself. Both usages should either indicate death or physical bodily ascension.

Ibn Abbasra narrated that Allah’s Messengersa delivered a sermon and said, “O people! You will be gathered before Allah barefooted, naked, and uncircumcised.” He went on to say, “Some men from my followers will be brought, and then the angels will drive them to the left side (Hell-Fire). I will say. ‘O, my Lord! They are my companions!’ A reply will come from the Almighty, ‘You do not know what they did after you.’ I will say as the pious slave [Prophet Jesusas] said:

‏وَكُنْتُ عَلَيْهِمْ شَهِيدًا مَا دُمْتُ فِيهِمْ فَلَمَّا تَوَفَّيْتَنِي كُنْتَ أَنْتَ الرَّقِيبَ عَلَيْهِمْ‏

This hadith is mentioned in Sahih al-Bukhari (Kitab at-tafsir, Hadith 4625). Now, it is evident that the Holy Prophetsa was not physically raised, as we all know he experienced a natural death. Therefore, if the Holy Prophetsa is using this verse to imply his natural demise, why should we conclude that Jesusas was raised physically?

Non-Ahmadi response: 1

Non-Ahmadi Muslims are eager to find escape routes and the general escape route recently seen on social media is of two types. One group of interpreters tries to associate tawaffa with Jesusas falling asleep before he ascended to heaven, while others do so by associating tawaffa with the ascension itself.

As for falling asleep before ascension, we have already explained how a qarinah indicating sleep is necessary for it to mean sleep and the challenge of the Promised Messiahas still stands firm on this even after 134 years. As for tawaffa referring to the physical ascension itself, this meaning is impossible according to how Allah has defined tawaffa in the Quran. Do they consider themselves so knowledgeable as to be able to imply completely out-of-hand meanings that go against the Quran for it to match their fabricated belief? Why do they try to impose a third meaning when Allah has only offered two possibilities?

Non-Ahmadi response – 2: Usage of different verb forms

Others try to quote verbs that are not from the verb form of tawaffa and then claim their meanings for this very verb. Instead of using the verb tawaffa-yatawaffa (Verb Form V), they use the verb waffa-yuwaffi (Verb Form II) or istawfa-yastawfi (Verb Form X).

Most Arabic words are derived from a trilateral, i.e., three-letter root. That trilateral root can produce many verbs in different forms stemming from the same root. These different verb forms are known as abwab (sg. bab) in Arabic morphology and there are a total of ten main verb forms in the Arabic language. Each verb form follows a specific pattern of consonants and vowels, and it contributes to the overall meaning and function of the verb. When we refer to the verb tawaffa which is derived from the three root letters waw-fa-ya, we are referring to Form V of the Arabic verb forms known as bab at-tafa‘‘ul. Our principle is based on this verb form.

However, when non-Ahmadi Muslims come across the challenge of the Promised Messiahas in regards to the verb tawaffa, and realise they cannot find any such example that goes against the principle, they then try to quote verbs from outside of Form V, which themselves are completely different verbs despite coming from the same root. Furthermore, from the conditions mentioned, the very first one was that the word tawaffa has to be used in this very form, which is Form V, i.e., bab at-tafa‘‘ul. Instead of using this verb in Form V, they quote this verb being used in Form II (bab at-taf‘il) or sometimes from Form X (bab al-istif‘al).

For example, they quote the verb tuwaffa, which is in the passive form of Form II which is not the same as tawaffa despite it sounding similar. Arabic is an intricate language; a mere change in the vowels and letters can make a huge difference. So when someone claims tuwaffa is the same as tawaffa, then it is not the same verb.

Non-Ahmadi response – 3: The Maliki approach

We also come across a small number of Muslims who label themselves as Malikis and believe that Jesusas did die, but only for a few hours, and was thereafter once again raised from the dead and given life. Such Malikis quote references from Ibn ‘Ashur and others. However, the Quran makes it clear in numerous places that someone who dies cannot be resurrected and given life again.

Non-Ahmadi response – 4: Meaning of ‘taking the soul’, figurative

Another response that is given is that the meaning that we apply is a figurative (majazi) meaning and the real literal (haqiqi) meaning is just ‘to take’.

As previously mentioned, this verb is used in a particular context in the Holy Quran, where certain conditions are laid out. When those conditions are met, then it can never mean just ‘to take’ in a physical sense. Furthermore, whenever it is applied to a soul, it always means ‘to take the soul’ and the dictionaries agree with this. The non-Ahmadis have been challenged on this but have not yet found a response to it.

Non-Ahmadi response – 5: Death refers to him dying in the end times

They say that death, in the verses mentioned about Jesusas, refers to his passing away in the end times after he has physically descended. This is not possible because, as mentioned previously in the article, the tawaffa of Jesusas has already happened according to the Surah Al-Ma’idah verse. This is because we see the condition of Christians today as misguided, which was only meant to happen after the tawaffa of Prophet Jesus, peace be upon him.

No posts to display


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here